Tuesday, March 03, 2009

MWRC 2009 Mini-Interview: Philippe Hanrigou

This will be the last mini-interview before MWRC 2009. Philippe Hanrigou (@ph7) has been kind enough to answer a few questions on the topic of his presentation — "What The Ruby Craftsman Can Learn From The Smalltalk Master". Read on to get a taste of what Philippe will be covering in just ten more days. Oh, and if you haven't registered yet, there are just 4 more days and about 40 more seats. Don't wait any longer, go register now!

Your talk at last year's MWRC was pretty incredible. How are you going to top it this year?

Philippe Well, first thank you. Every presentation is a new experience, and I believe people will end up quite excited about this one since

  • The subject should appeal to a wider audience — it touches the core of our craft: software design.
  • I am standing on the shoulders on giants. In my mind Kent Beck is one of the software grand masters with the most comprehensive, genuine, and inspiring understanding of the software craft. So simply relaying some of his wisdom as it applies to Ruby should be quite incredible in its own way already.

Rubyists seem to spend a lot of time looking up to the Smalltalk masters, why?

Philippe Smalltalkers were writing Object-Oriented software in a dynamic, interpreted duck typed language 20 years ago. It would be amazing if there wasn't something to learn.

It is also quite notable that the Smalltalk community has been incredibly talented, innovative and creative in pushing the software craft to the next level. Most of the best techniques we use today to develop software are rooted in the Smalltalk community: test-driven development, refactoring, design patterns, core object-oriented principles, pair-programming, emphasis on short an efficient feedback cycles, ... just to name a few! So any sensible software developer would look up to the Smalltalk community, whatever programming language or platform he/she is using.

I actually believe that we do not learn enough from the experience, errors and innovations of the programmer generations and communities that preceded ours — even the Ruby community, which is better than most in this regard. Unfortunately the "Not Invented Here" syndrome, does not just apply to our code, it also applies to ours practices. We have a tendency to "rediscover" the same errors and bad practices over an over again. Rails' original take at testing and test data management is a good example in this regard. So looking up to the best software masters is a great and healthy thing!

What other language's practitioners should we be learning from?

Philippe We can learn from countless people, fields and languages. For instance, there is a lot to learn from the LISP community, especially in terms of elegance, meta-programming and its unsurpassed emphasis on "programmable programming language".

Nevertheless, programming is before all, an exercise in communication, creativity and human interaction. So some of the most interesting things to discover are probably to be learned from communities that do not write any software at all: either from communities facing similar challenges (artists, designers) or from communities that have been studying these topics from a different angle (ethnologists, sociologists, historians). Brian Marick gave a wonderful piece of advice on how we could approach this learning experience in one of his recent blog entries:

"It seems to me that I’m not so much someone who’s come up with any great new ideas as someone who’s good at looking at the familiar from an odd perspective. I get that odd perspective from reading odd things, such as sociology of science or literary theory, and asking “Suppose this point of view were true: what would it mean for building software?"

Sometimes, it seems like our interest isn't reciprocated. What can rubyists teach smalltalkers?

Philippe The sad part about Smalltalk is that its most prominent leaders have been programming in Java for the last ten years. The main thing we can teach smalltalkers is a message of hope. Dynamic languages are coming back in the front scene and this will benefit all of us! Thanks to Ruby marketing and promotion, dynamic languages are now perceived as as a competitive advantage not only by programmers, but also by CEOs! Ruby has an impactful story that extends beyond its technical merits and also appeals to decision makers — In great part due to David Heinemeier Hansson's marketing genius and his emphasis on the productivity message, which makes sense to business people too.

I believe smalltalkers could also benefit by keeping an open mind and using Ruby as a way to challenge some aspects of Smalltalk design that they love so much, like radical language symmetry.

New programming languages or platforms have almost no features that, in isolation, are really new. It is a lot more about picking the right set of features and mixing the right blend. This is an art in which Matz is especially talented, and which gives Ruby a feel that appeals to a much broader audience:

Some may say Ruby is a bad rip-off of Lisp or Smalltalk, and I admit that. But it is nicer to ordinary people.

Consequently Ruby and Smalltalk have very different tradeoffs in terms of naturalness versus symmetry, or in terms of beauty versus expressiveness.

To be honest, I do not expect smalltakers to let go of their radical commitment to minimalism and symmetry: it is too much core to their culture and one man's expressive code is another man's nightmare. Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from a different set of tradeoffs and Matz's pragmatic approach to language design. I personally find Ruby even more expressive than Smalltalk, a characteristic I directly attribute to Ruby's decreased emphasis on keeping everything "pure" and symmetrical, as well as reaching a better tension point between functional and object-oriented programming.

What do you think makes MWRC a good place for Rubyists to gather?

Philippe Last year was my first time attending MountainWest RubyConf and I was blown away by the high quality of talks and corridor chats, the organizers' kindness, the flawless program execution, and even more importantly, the conference's strong and engaging human dimension.

So if you are into expanding your mind and knowledge, meeting great people, or passionate debates on Ruby and software, MountainWest RubyConf will blow you mind. Huge kudos to all the MountainWest organizers for making it happen!

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